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Alan Humm reviews "The Night Jar"

Poems are made out of words. Get them wrong – miscalculate their weight and heft – and you're in danger of becoming "a lout with language", as Tom Stoppard once described it. Thoughts; beliefs; compulsively communicated manifestos – they're all constructed out of words and phrases. I realise that this sounds glaringly obvious but what you say and think is so often privileged over how you say it that it bears repeating. You cannot make a good poem, let alone a great one, out of your thoughts and feelings alone. Sometimes you have to stalk them. To keep downwind of them.

Louise Peterkin knows this. She is a serious writer; a writer who, rather disarmingly, claims her themes to be "personas/character monologues" and "cinema" but who, in reality, writes extensively about loneliness, otherness and the desire to be elsewhere. She does this in a way which is entirely her own. She is not a confessional poet. What we are presented with instead are the intensely imagined lives of others: a nun called Sister Agnieszka; Jaws from the James Bond films; H.P. Lovecraft; The King Who Ate Himself To Death or (my favourite) Renfield from Dracula, a man-creature who eats bees and flies, spiders and birds. Bees, apparently, taste "liverish, autumnal" and one's fingers take on "the tang of a bell". There are,

"faint arcs of gore under each nail

as if I had been playing a black pudding piano."

These lovely analogies work, as all Peterkin's analogies work, in a complex way. As counterpoint, for one thing: that near-regretful and diffuse "autumnal" next to the comedy of the black pudding. I was consistently delighted by the suppleness of the writing. Here, more or less at random, are a selection of images:

"cats with bones like marimbas"

"blisters like hot plastic"

"A committee clustered like an opulent brooch"

"coffee so rich it has its own weather; clouds, storms

collect on the surface"

Each poem is lifted by its analogies as though by a cloud of champagne bubbles. The poems sing; they dance. But then you notice that, in essence, what you're witnessing is an act of radical empathy. Peterkin's interest in the more pulpy side of popular culture is neither gestural (a glib post-modern reflex) nor is it prurient. She inhabits her characters with an ease that makes them vivid and even likeable. Each character shines, and shines, crucially, on their own terms. Here is a description of the afore-mentioned Jaws:

"Well, if my lot

in life's to die alone, so be it. In the daily grind –

crushing hard composite to powder, feeling

the larval throb of pulse against my lips –

I appreciate the basics, the mineral

beginnings of things."

Jaws gets to talk from the inside; to speak about his own feelings in a voice as replete with beauty as any poet now writing. That "larval throb"; those "mineral beginnings". Lovely. Here, meanwhile, is the greedy king:

"But the blowhard lobster was centrepiece; his magnanimous claws

said, 'pull up a chair'."

This, in the context of the king's rueful attempt at self-justification, is funny. A lot of this book is funny. Peterkin has a sly, sometimes acerbic, sense of humour and this, too, creates a sense of lightness in the poems. They're true in spirit to the culture that she is describing; to the feeling of being transported that you get from watching a good film. Escape is important to her, I think; the notion of elsewhere acts as both temptation and tonic, for example, to the narrator who would rather be late – would rather go to the lake "to freight whole toupées of weed" – than "scrape rounds of crud from the boiler". Then there is Brazil, its summer "as thick as foliage". You can, in a Louise Peterkin poem, make a real gingerbread house or live in Ernst Stavro Blofeld's lair, and each place is described with details that are so dreamily exact that you feel their pull. Fantasy is elsewhere, writ large. Visiting it is legitimate.

But there is no such thing as an unmixed pleasure. Life, all life, is tricky. There is the reporter, so stressed that he hopes acupuncture will make his brain "go pfffff like a tyre". Or Ines, whose disappointing father is like "the sovereign of an obscure country whose name is not quite a palindrome". In the end, the poet would probably claim that the psychological acuity and the realism of the detail are enough; that simply inhabiting these characters is the poems' raison d'être. But I wouldn't believe her. I think that what she's doing is something much more sophisticated. She's addressing loneliness and disappointment by inhabiting those fictional and historical characters who might be expected to feel it most strongly. It is so endemic, her poems are saying, that even these fictional creations feel it. Or, to put it another way, bring a character to life and you have to address these feelings as an inevitable part of the baggage of life itself. Life is, in the words of Louis MacNeice, "incorrigibly plural"; this is a fact we must accept. If we can, we should also try to celebrate it. But then we must do the more difficult thing: we must empathise. Because, if we don't, who will empathise with us? Peterkin transfers feelings of loneliness and otherness onto her characters and then turns that on its head. By giving them all of her gifts she proves them to be unalone; the recipient of the talent and, yes, wisdom of a poet who feels their pain because it is also hers. Unwilling to talk baldly about her own experiences, Peterkin places them elsewhere and, by doing so, she makes them universal.

Alan Humm is the editor of One Hand Clapping.


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